Menno Meyjes’ debut feature often feels staged and obvious, and its premise is questionable... But there are ideas and feelings here that do resonate and the technique, however contrived, eventually unveils some truth. “Max” is an artist-as-a-young-man character study with a wild twist: said artist is Adolf Hitler. The film is set in 1918 Munich and revolves around how the future Führer befriends a fellow veteran from the first World War, one-armed Jewish art dealer Max Rothman (a fictional composite of real-life characters). Noah Taylor is perfectly cast as Hitler. From the first shot, we completely buy him in the role and that first impression is confirmed over and over through the film, especially as we see him make his first raging public speeches. John Cusack is compelling as Rothman, but he’s mostly playing a variation of his usual persona, which feels a bit out of place in 1918 Germany.
The plot is allegedly about Hitler’s struggle to find his voice as a painter under the tutoring of Rothman, but the historical subtext overpowers any other thematic pretense. Heck, it’s not even “sub” anything, it’s right there on the surface, with what we know Hitler will become being constantly and explicitly addressed. We heart him talk about Germany is being “stabbed in the back” by the Versailles treaty, how the army is vital and war is “the hygiene of the world” and how “the Semitic question is far too important to be left to the individual, it ought to be in the domain of the government like public health or sewage.” These moments are chilling, particularly because Taylor is so convincing and we’re aware that Hitler’s crazy ideas will indeed spread. In that regard, “Max” kind of works as a “Triumph of the Will” prequel.
Some might resent how the film somehow humanises Hitler, suggesting that his “evil” spurred from insecurity, poverty, resentment... But who’s to say that wasn’t the case? Did a happy, fulfilled man ever become a hateful dictator? The thing I’m not sure about is the notion that if he’d poured all his pent-up rage in his art instead of politics, the world might have been a different place. This seems facile and reductive to me, but what is interesting is how the film establishes a link between Hitler’s two interests, especially since his National Socialist Party did actually use imagery, film, architecture and various other symbols to bring further people to their cause.
So there are some very interesting ideas in “Max”, it’s just too bad that Menno Meyjes’ direction don’t do them justice. You know what his film feels like? A movie adaptation of a two-act play set in an art gallery with Hitler and a Jewish dealer discussing heartily for two hours that still feels overly static and unnatural despite would-be fancy camerawork and the addition of unnecessary subplots (involving Molly Parker as Max’s wife and Leelee Sobieski as his mistress) to spread things out. Still, Noah Taylor’s blistering performance and the thrust of Meyjes’ “art+politics=power” theory are engaging enough and as Rothman says at some point, “it doesn’t have to be good and it doesn’t have to be beautiful, it just has to be true.” And while “Max” plays around with the facts, in essence I think it’s onto something.